A few weeks ago I sat down with Brian Lamb of C-Span for an interview. That interview will run next Sunday at 8 and 11PM. In the meantime, however, C-Span showed parts of what I said to Akbar Ahmed, the Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, and got his reactions. The full transcript of what Ahmed said is here, and you can watch the show featuring him here. C-Span gave me no opportunity to reply to Dr. Ahmed or to interact with him at all; so I will do so here now.
ROBERT SPENCER, FOUNDER, JIHAD WATCH: Islam is the only religion in the world that has a developed doctrine theology and legal system that mandates violence against unbelievers and mandates that Muslims must wage war in order to establish the homogeneity of the Islamic social order over the world. Now, these things are objectively verifiable facts. Anyone can look at the Koran. Anyone can look at the Muslim sources, the Muslim history, Muslim legal texts and so on and find that to be true.
AHMED: My reaction of Robert is that he’s right. Islam does have a very aggressive almost attitude to spreading the word.
At the same time, where does Islam get this from? I pointed out that Islam is very conscious of its Judeo-Christian legacy. This is part of the Judeo-Christian legacy. So, the moment you make this statement about Islam you can make exactly the same statement about Judaism and Christianity. If you read the bible and read versus about smiting and smite so and so and smite so and so, you realize how in fact aggressive the bible can be. That is precisely why we need to go to the spirit of the bible. When we talk of Jesus as the embodiment, as we do as Muslims who revere and love Jesus, as the embodiment of love and compassion and piety and humility, it is the spirit we take of the book, not the literal translation.
Actually, as I have pointed out many, many times, when you make that statement about Islam you cannot make the same statement about Judaism and Christianity. Neither of the latter have anything like the doctrine of jihad among their teachings. Neither have in their Scriptures any open-ended and universal command to all believers to make war against and subjugate all unbelievers, a la Qur’an 9:29. His opposition of the “spirit” of the Bible, as embodied by Jesus, to the “literal translation” is attempting to create an antinomy that doesn’t exist — he is giving the impression that Jesus exists in the Bible amid a welter of bellicosity, and that simply isn’t true. In any case, Jesus in his own teachings sets the pattern for how Christians understand Old Testament passages, and mitigates many — “an eye for an eye” becomes “turn the other cheek,” etc. Of course, in neither Judaism nor Christianity is there any violent movement today pointing to Biblical texts as its justification. But there is in Islam. So to equate all three as equally given to this sort of thing, as Dr. Ahmed does, is simply to sidestep the real question: why do such movements exist today in Islam but not in the other two “Abrahamic” traditions?
So, Robert in that sense is pointing out something which on one level is literally true but on another level it contains a deeper truth, which is what we need to be looking at, that you need to see it in the context of the Abrahamic tradition.
LAMB: Have you seen this documentary?
AHMED: I haven’t seen this documentary, but I know the work of Dr. Spencer and I know a lot of these arguments because I”ve been a scholar of Islam for the last several decades. So, I”m very aware with all my friends and colleagues. And we interact with them. We debate. We discuss….
I’d be very happy to discuss these matters and/or debate with Dr. Ahmed.
SPENCER: The Jewish and Christian traditions have developed interpretative methods whereby they blunt the force of some of the more uncomfortable passages of the bible so that nobody reads in the psalms where it says, “Blessed is the one who takes your babies and strikes them against the rock,” and thinks we should go out and bash babies” heads in. This has never been something that Jews — even the most extreme Jewish and Christian groups have ever relied on that kind of biblical literalism in regard to those kinds of passage.
In Islam, on the other hand, the literalist tradition is paramount. And the understanding that these things are indeed marching orders for all believers is paramount so that also there’s a fundamental difference in the fact that there is an open ended and universal mandate to commit to — to commit violence, to wage war against nonbelievers for believers in the Koran. There is no such universal and open ended mandate to commit violence in the scriptures — in the Christian or Jewish scriptures.
LAMB: Is he right?
AHMED: He’s not right again, Brian. Let me urge all your viewers to read the work of Rumi. He says all Muslims are mandated to go out and kill and be violent and so on. We”ve established that’s part of the Abrahamic tradition. Each tradition has a counterpoint. The counterpoint in Islam is the mystic Sufi tradition. Rumi is an example. Rumi is today in the United States the number one best selling poet in the United States of America. You”ll be surprised at this, but he is. Go to any book shop and they”ll confirm this.
Who is Rumi? Thirteenth century mystic Muslim poet talking of love and compassion. I go to the synagogue. I go to the church. I go to the mosque. I see the same spirit and the same altar. This is Islam. Rumi’s inspiration, Brian, to Koran. So, rich Koran is Rumi reading. Rich Koran is Dr. Spencer reading.
So, there is a debate within Islam itself and it has been debated for centuries. I pointed out earlier that what we are seeing is because of globalization, because of the forces around us that the debate’s shifting away from Rumi’s interpretation or my interpretation of inclusivity to a more exclusivist tendency. That is what we need to be concerned with, because if we don’t we”re in danger of producing a monolith of Islam because a monolith does not exist.
Even the example of Jinnah — let Mr. Spencer read the speeches of Jinnah or the actions — interpret the actions of Jinnah in the “30s and “40s. This is a liberal humanist interpretation of modern Islam. Read the works of Allama Iqbal, who inspired Jinnah, the greatest poet of South Asia, the great poet philosopher. He wrote a poem for Ramma, the Hindu god. That is how liberal and how open and inclusivist Iqbal is. Iqbal is the inspiration for the creation of Pakistan.
So, you have a debate within Islam itself. What you are seeing is that debate reaching a climax….
Again, Dr. Ahmed sidesteps the question. The clip Lamb played of me was about the violent verses of the Qur’an and their interpretation. In response, Dr. Ahmed ignores this except to say again that Judaism and Christianity are the same as Islam. Then he starts talking about Muslim poets and humanists. Great. Did they offer an alternative understanding of the Qur’an and Islam that mitigated the violent passages and taught on Islamic grounds that Muslims should live as equals with unbelievers without ever attempting to impose Sharia? They did not — but Ahmed doesn’t tell us this.
Why does this matter? Because he goes on to say that the imams who support suicide bombing and the like are literalists, but when he goes into a mosque, he talks about Rumi and Jinnah. That’s just wonderful, but he is always going to face an uphill battle from Muslims who believe that the Qur’an is the word of Allah and thus outweighs Rumi and Jinnah. And he has not explained what he would do about that.
SPENCER: There’s a prevailing fog of political correctness over the land that has the power to cloud men’s minds and makes them not see what’s obvious. And this — these issues are — speaking honestly about these issues, the American Muslim advocacy groups have been very skillful in portraying anyone who speaks honestly about these issues as being some kind of a hate monger.
AHMED: You know, Brian, in America, the United States, the debate does get a bit caught up in these advocacy groups. And I try to avoid both Muslim and non-Muslim because, to me, the issue really is a bigger one. It isn’t just a question of Muslims surviving or non-Muslims surviving.
Of course it isn’t, and I didn’t say it was.
We are living on a planet which is overpopulated. Poverty is rampant in parts of Africa, Asia. It’s a very serious situation, the starvation, thousands facing starvation. Global warming is a reality. Religious conflict, ethnic conflict is taking lives across the world. You see what’s happening in the Middle East, Israel feeling threatened, the Arabs feeling threatened, both locked up in a cycle of violence.
We really have to begin to look at each other not in terms of advocacy, not in terms of scoring points, not in terms of tit for tat. I would invite distinguished scholars like Dr. Spencer to begin this process, the scholars looking at Islam, rather than just creating a scare about Islam. Let them help Muslims and non-Muslims discover or rediscover the traditions of compassion, of dialogue, of inclusivity within Islam itself. It is a very, very rich legacy.
As I said, I’d be happy to debate Dr. Ahmed, but the real task he faces is not to convince me that there are “traditions of compassion, of dialogue, of inclusivity within Islam itself.” The real task he faces is to convince the mujahedin. If I get together with him and have a lively discussion about Rumi’s poetry, it will not accomplish this.
Remember, Islam gave you a civilization 1,000 years ago with scholars and writers and astrologers and poets, which was unique at that time of the world. It was right at the cutting edge, the most advanced civilizations of the world. Why can’t Muslims again participate on this? Why must Muslims be known as terrorists and extremists in the American mind? This is a great challenge for Muslims….
Leaving aside the question of whether that great civilization was really so great, Muslims today are known as terrorists and extremists because that is what they have been all too often. I’m glad he says that “this is a great challenge for Muslims,” because that is exactly what it is — although most Muslims would say it is a great challenge for unbelievers, and charge that it is up to us to think Islam is benign despite the ever-increasing amount of evidence to the contrary.
AHMED: Yes. Yes. Again, Brian, the Koran is — as a great scholar of Islam who converted from Christianity to Islam wrote about it, it’s like an ocean. The deeper you go into it the deeper you learn its mysteries. It is really — like all the great religious texts, the bible or the Judaic texts, there is so much for us as human beings to become aware of to spiritually uplift ourselves. And the Koran is like that.
You pointed out that every chapter starts with, “In the name of God, the compassionate, the beneficence and the merciful.” Now, this comes from the fact that God in Islam is known by 99 names or attributes. And of these 99 two, that is Rahman and Rahim, beneficence and mercy, compassion, mercy, are the two that are most repeated throughout the day by Muslims all over the world. So, even as we speak Muslims will be saying this one loud, Rahman and Rahim, in the name of God, the beneficence and the merciful.
So, Islam is emphasizing, encouraging us to emphasize compassion and mercy round the clock.
Actually, one sura does not begin with “in the name of Allah, the compassionate, the merciful.” This is sura 9, which commands that Muslims wage war against Jews and Christians (9:29).
I ask myself the question you asked a few minutes ago about these young men. If young men get on a plane to blow themselves up where is the mercy and compassion? They”re missing something. It is my job as a Muslim scholar to make sure that they”re aware what they”re missing and what’s going wrong in their thinking. If I can’t do it, Brian, I have failed. That is why, for me, this dialogue is like an obsession. It’s like something that I must do because at this critical time in the post 9-11 world we”re living in I believe every Muslim scholar must be out there interacting with both the non-Muslims like we are doing but with Muslims, because if we don’t do it we will have failed our community and eventually the world community.
LAMB: Robert Spencer talks about this chapter. Let’s watch.
SPENCER: It is generally understood by Islamic theologians as meaning that this is because this is not a chapter of compassion or mercy. This is a chapter of warfare. And it is the — generally understood to abrogate the — any treaty of peace or any accord that Muslims had with non-believers as dictated by any other part of the book that now with this at the last, the last — the Koran’s last word on Jihad — and, again, this is not my opinion. This is the opinion of traditional and mainstream Islamic theologians and Koranic commentators such as Ibn Kathir and others. They say that this is meaning that the posture of Muslims toward non-Muslims forever after throughout history is to be one of warfare in order to establish the hegemony of Islamic law of sharia and that that warfare is certainly carried out by various different means. And it doesn’t mean that every Muslim is going to be trying to kill every other non-Muslim at all times. But the overall responsibility of the umma, the Muslim community worldwide, is to continue to pursue this war insofar as it is possible in every age in order ultimately to Islamize the world.
I apologize for being incoherent. I meant to say that mainstream Muslim theologians have understood sura 9, with its exhortations to warfare, to abrogate every peace treaty in the Qur’an between believers and unbelievers.
AHMED: Chapters were written, Brian, over a period of time, very soon after the prophet but over a period of time. So, there was a debate should they be the Meccan chapters first, then the Medina chapters because, as revelations came they were divided according to were they being received in Mecca or Medina. Or should they be longer and shorter and so on.
So, it isn’t a question of this chapter abrogating an earlier chapter because, again, you have those whole logic and illogic and gods mind. You cannot have God constantly changing his mind.
Ahmed may have forgotten about Qur’an 2:106: “None of Our revelations do We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, but We substitute something better or similar: Knowest thou not that Allah Hath power over all things?”
At the same time we are told — and we”re all scholars, and Robert Spencer’s pointing out Muslim scholars — that these chapters are coming at a certain time of history. There’s a situation which is specific to immediate moment in time. There’s a battle. There’s a peace treaty being formed. There’s a situation of an event in the prophet’s life. And then there are other chapters which are talking of principles of society.
So, they”re two quite distinct things happening here. I interpret it like this. When there’s a specific chapter talking about Muslims who are not very good Muslims or making peace with the Jews or fighting with the Jews or other Christians are fighting with Muslims and making peace with them, those are specific to a certain situation taking place then at time — in that particular time.
Sure, but here again, I said that mainstream Muslim theologians believe that this chapter abrogates other Qur’anic passages. In response, he explains that certain passages address particular circumstances. This doesn’t address the question.
And then there are chapters with general principles — how should we be treating humanity, how should we be treating Jews and Christians, the people of the book how should we be looking at Jesus. There’s an entire chapter, for example, on Mary, the mother of Jesus. She’s treated with such reverence in the Koran. There are mentions of Jesus more than the prophet himself in the Koran. And the prophet is on record. The famous saying of his that there is no one closer to Jesus than I am in reverence and love.
So, all that is the spirit, the philosophy of the Koran that I would get in reading it. If I read it critically and scholarly in a scholarly fashion that this chapter relates more to what’s happening on the ground and maybe or maybe not. It doesn’t make much sense to me. There’s a tribal war going on. There’s some kind of treaty. There’s some kind of abrogation or fight between groups. And then there’s a chapter which relates to me in the twenty-first century. It gives me certain principles on how I am to live my life now in the twenty-first century. This is where Muslims need to be using their critical faculties at looking at the Koran.
Great. How will he convince the mujahedin that sura 9 “doesn’t make much sense” for the modern world?
LAMB: Again, you”re saying that you tend to look at the positive side of this and you have the imams and the mosques in London that undoubtedly if that’s true pumped up all these kids to go out and kill themselves.
AHMED: Brian, again, it’s a debate. It’s a discussion. And all the imams are not like this. I can give you many examples here in the United States. My friend Imam Magid who heads the Dulles Muslim Center, the most important center here in Washington D.C. — in fact, the “Time Magazine” had a story on him calling him the American Imam or something very popular, very obane (ph), very relaxed, very — reaching out to Jews and Christians involved with me in this Abrahamic dialogue.
His interpretation would be exactly like mine, which is the broader, the more philosophic, the reaching out to people. So, again, it is a debate within the faiths. Dr. Spencer may be saying one thing. Other Christian scholars of Islam may be saying completely the opposite. These are all parts of our own opinions being given on the basis of our study, on the basis of our own research, and is part of the debate.
Sure. Everybody has lots of opinions. But I don’t actually do anything but report on the understanding of Islam forwarded by the mujahedin. He can represent this as my opinion all he wants, but it is the mujahedin who are flying planes into buildings because of them, and as he himself says above, it is them he must convinces of the error of these “opinions.”
LAMB: In this chapter — I’ll just read you a couple sentences and then have you explain it.
“And when the sacred months are past, kill those who join other gods” — small G with gods — large G — “wherever ye shall find them and seize them. Besiege them and lay awake for them with every kind of ambush. But if they shall convert and observe prayer and pay the obligatory alms, then let them go their way, for God is gracious and merciful.”
AHMED: Now, I interpret this — I”ve read that verse and I was very interested in that. So, I”m glad you picked that one out.
What is God saying? Again, let’s step back a little bit. This is the Abrahamic God, first point, very possessive, very jealous about only me and don’t look at idols, don’t look at — remember, Abraham actually smashes idols made by his own father. He sets the mold for us. And we are very Abrahamic in our view as Muslims.
So, the first is the possessiveness, the exclusivity. And for this, my Hindu friends, for example, or my Buddhist friends always tease me, joke at me and say, “You Abrahamic people tend to be very possessive about your sense of God. Only we are right. The boundaries are very clear.” They tend to be much more flexible, much more fluid, much more relaxed about faith — other people’s faith.
The second is the clause (ph) where you invite them to your dialogue, invite them to your way of looking. And if there’s a possibility of making peace with them, coming to understanding, then that peace is better than war. There are many verses like this which strike me where God says in the Koran “fight them” and fight them here and fight them — the Jews and the Christians in the middle of war there’s a verse which says, which is very often quoted by my colleagues like Dr. Spencer — fight the Jews, fight the Christians, fight the bad Muslims.
The next verse, Brian, goes on to say, “But make peace with them because God prefers peace.” So, how would I read it? I would read it like this, that if there is a war situation even then peace has to be preferred. Even then dialogue and understanding trump war and violence….
Another untraditional opinion. I’m glad he holds it. I hope he can convince his coreligionists of it.
SPENCER: The problem that the world faces and the problem that the Muslim communities of the West face as well as the Muslim communities in the Islamic world face is that the terrorists are taking the teachings of the Koran and the teachings of Islamic theology and law that mandate violence and are running with them. And it is very difficult to formulate a case on — solely on Muslim grounds to say that that’s illegitimate. And so, while there are moderate Muslims, the fact that Islam itself is not moderate makes it very difficult for those moderates to establish any kind of large scale anti-terror effort.
AHMED: I don’t agree here, Brian. I”ve just given you the example of Mr. Jinnah, the twentieth century, that when given a choice Muslims — and he said that there are no moderate Muslims and Muslims don’t go along the moderate camp as it were and rather prefer the extremist camp. When given a choice they rally behind a man like Jinnah.
Did you catch that? I said “there are moderate Muslims” and he says of me, “he said that there are no moderate Muslims.”
And alas, he leaves unaddressed what I was really saying, which is that while there are moderate Muslims, Islam itself is not moderate.
Now, the key question for us is why in the twenty-first century can’t we have more Muslim leaders in that mold. The Muslim leaders saying, “All right, we have a problem. Palestinians, we have a problem. Let’s sit down with the Israelis. Let’s sort it out. Negotiations, talking, peace processes. Let’s not blow ourselves up. Let’s not blow ourselves up on campuses or in pizzerias. Let’s not to take these violent acts because they”re getting us nowhere and it’s against the law and it’s immoral.” That’s what Jinnah did. He never went to jail once, never broke the law. He fought within the law and yet he achieved the largest Muslim nation on earth. That is our challenge.
We need — it is there, so I don’t agree with Dr. Spencer. It doesn’t exist, for Jinnah is not a political figure. He’s a real figure. I”m giving you a real life example. For Pakistanis he’s like Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, all rolled into one, the founding father. He exists. Why can’t we create more Jinnahs in the Muslim world? That is our challenge.
He does not explain, of course, that Jinnah departed from traditional Islam in many ways. He was a moderate Muslim, yes, but he did not base his political philosophy on Islamic grounds.
Your challenge in the United States is to understand what’s happening in the Muslim world because if you don’t and you treat all Muslims as potential terrorists according to Dr. Spencer thesis that there are no moderates, then what you will do is you will push a lot of moderates, a lot of marginal and wavering and swinging people into the extremist camp. And that, Brian, I”m afraid even the sole superpower of the world cannot afford to do. You cannot take on 1.4 billion people where you have such interests as you do in the Middle East and South Asia and Central Asia….
Well, of course, he is now running with his misinterpretation of what I said, but in any case, he is again retailing an argument that will be familiar to Jihad Watch readers: if you say Islam is violent, you will make Muslims become violent. I don’t see why this would be true. I just heard Dr. Ahmed say above that Christianity is just as violent as Islam, but that doesn’t make me as a Christian any more inclined to violence than I ever was.
SPENCER: Islam is not what you think. Most of the people — you know, I talk to officials all the time. I talk to media types all the time. And they are unanimous or virtually unanimous in their certainty that the terrorists are not true Muslims and that Islam is a religion of peace that they”re twisting.
Now, it’s not for me or anyone else to say that they are true Muslims, but there’s no doubt that they are working from broad traditions within Islam. And as long as Muslims like this reviewer refuse to face that instead of take concrete steps to combat it, that’s going to continue to go on. And this is why this question is so urgent.
LAMB: You know, a lot of people were critical of the Islam community in this country for not standing up and really criticizing the terrorists back in 9-11 and ever since then. Will — I know you”ve been active in that, but have they been reticent to stand up?
AHMED: Brian, there was a reticence. In fact, I regret to say this, that even when I started my dialogues with Judeo Pearl, when I went to bruslastic (ph) synagogue just two years after — one year after 9-11 — he invited me — there was a headline in Pakistan in a Pakistani paper which said, “Akbar Ahmed sole Muslim voice wanting dialogue with the Jews.” I got a lot of very nasty e-mails.
So, I”m aware that we Muslims have to accept the challenge. I would also invite friends and colleagues like Dr. Spencer to also accept the challenge not to create further misunderstanding, not to fuel the fires, because this kind of black-and-white presentation of Islam will confirm in Americans” minds that Islam is a dangerous terrorist evil religion, and purely on practical terms, not theological, not moral, not historical.
Great. I would like nothing better than to see Ahmed and his friends convince all Muslims that Islam has nothing to do with violence. But again, he will not do this by ignoring or denying the elements of Islam that are giving rise to violence. He must confront them. He has not done so here; instead he has just sidestepped them. A mujahid who happened to see this interview would not be convinced to lay down his arms. And on that score, by Dr. Ahmed’s own admission above, he has failed.
On practical terms the United States cannot bomb the whole planet and live by itself. It must engage. It must talk about winning hearts and minds, as President Bush is trying to scatter (ph), use his colleague in the State Department. He’s trying to genuinely reach out through public diplomacy, friendship, dialogue, to begin the process of getting in the majority of Muslims in the debate.
Even Bernard Lewis, the great historian at Princeton, a friend and colleague from my Princeton days, he wrote an article just two days ago in the “Wall Street Journal” this week in which he argued about the 22nd of August being a very dangerous date and so on. But the last paragraph of the article says — that’s the conclusion — that the only solution is the long-term solution of involving and incorporating the majority of the Muslim world into this dialogue. And that is how you marginalize extremism and, therefore, violence.
You cannot do it any other way, Brian, because right now what I am seeing — and I am very worried about this — as a Muslim who’s been advocating dialogue and understanding, sometimes at great cost to myself and to my personal safety, what I am seeing is people like me being further and further marginalized and the men of extremism getting the opportunity to say, “Here we are. Here’s another documentary like Dr. Spencer’s documentary. It’s anti-Islam. America hates Islam. America’s on the warpath against Islam. And you, Akbar Ahmed, by having dialogue with Brian, with Judeo Pearl and so on, are selling out. You are an Uncle Tom.” They”ve written this about me.
So, we have to be very sensitive about the debate within the Muslim world.
So we can’t talk about the elements of Islam that inspire violence, because this will only inspire violence. I am all for dialogue, but only on the basis of honesty and open, forthright debate.